Heroes of Mana is not the first Nintendo DS game to employ PC-style real-time strategy mechanics, but it's the first one to do it so thoroughly. There's a solid basis for a game in here, wrapped up with a terrific and sensible interface that RTS newcomers will pick up quickly. Veterans will also appreciate its simplicity and versatility. However, it can be a frequent disaster, drowning its lofty aspirations in a deluge of appalling unit pathfinding. The bizarre and unbalanced multiplayer setup will also turn off anyone looking to experience it with a friend. You may find some fun here and there, but the game tries its best to hide it from you.
Of course, this is a Mana game, so even though the gameplay is nothing like previous games in the series, fans will still enjoy the references and familiar creatures. Rabites and the elemental spirits alike have a role to play, so if you were worried about the new gameplay direction, you can at least hold onto them. The story isn't particularly engaging, but it's pleasant enough. It sends your rebel adventurers down a bleak path, only to gradually restore hope to them when all seems lost. While the narrative is fine, the frequency with which it intrudes upon gameplay is annoying. You'll have to tap your way through dialogue multiple times in each mission, which is a reminder of the series' role-playing roots, but it's a frequent frustration and a blow to the game's already inconsistent pace.
As in most RTS games, you need to collect resources (in this instance, gaia stones and treant fruit) and create structures to churn out battle units. Your base is a mobile airship, so it can move about the battlefield, but it must be fastened to an anchor point on the map to produce units and collect resources. Rather than buildings placed on the map proper, structures are contained within your base itself. Once you have enough stone, you simply enter your ship and choose the structure you want to build. Once the upgrade is complete, all you have to do is select the structure and choose which units you want to create, and then they pop right out.
These traditional mechanics are held together nicely by an intuitive interface that makes it easy to create units and move about the map. Gameplay takes place on the touch screen, so giving an order is as simple as touching a unit and choosing a destination. You can also issue group orders, either by tapping an icon at the bottom of the screen that chooses all similar units or by drawing a circle around the units you want to command. Getting around the map is likewise a breeze. You can use the D pad for free-form scrolling, but Heroes' best feature is its screen flipping. Tapping an icon swaps the top screen's minimap with the touch screen's gameplay map. You can then choose a destination on the minimap and swap the main map back onto the touch screen to give orders. This system makes it simple to order units around and to move quickly to skirmishes in progress.
But if issuing commands is quick and easy, getting your units to go where you ask is almost impossible. Heroes of Mana features the worst, most broken system of unit pathfinding ever devised. The map is actually a grid that comprises invisible squares, so units don't move freely toward their destination; they take an insane route based on what squares are available at the time the command is issued. The resulting stupidity may induce tears. If you build enough units at once, they will all crowd around your base until you give them an order, which keeps your gatherer units from returning resources. If a nearby square is already occupied when you issue a command, the unit will brainlessly take a route that sends it to the far reaches of the map, directly into enemy territory. To make it even worse, many of the maps have ramps, walkways, and other features that ground units must traverse to reach their objective. On those maps, you'll watch in agony as groups of units scatter, get stuck, or simply go nowhere because the game is incapable of finding a way to get them there.